Most of us are taught that carbohydrates belong in one of two major categories: simple (sugar, honey, syrup) and complex (whole grains, starchy veggies). We are advised to eat lots of complex carbs and to keep the simple carbs to a minimum, the reasoning being that the complex carbs supposedly take longer to digest.
But according to my chemistry notes (this should bring tears to Dr. Alexander’s eyes), distinguishing the good carbohydrates from the bad is a little more complicated.
Rather than two easy categories, research has demonstrated that foods seem to fall along a continuum in terms of the time it takes to metabolize them. Why is this important?
Well, when carbohydrates are digested, they are broken down into sugars, which impact our blood sugar or glucose levels. This blood glucose is the primary source of energy for our day-to-day activities.
So a food that is quickly metabolized could provide a more rapid increase in blood glucose levels than a food more slowly digested. Some foods that had typically been thought of as complex, such as boiled potatoes, were found to increase blood sugar levels more rapidly than some of the simple carbs like table sugar.
So, to create a better classification for foods, nerds all over the world convened and created the Glycemic Index (GI), a numerical scale used to measure how fast and how high a particular food can raise our blood glucose levels. A food with a low GI will prompt a moderate rise in blood glucose, while a food with a high GI (generally over 60) may cause blood glucose to increase above ideal levels. When blood sugar levels exceed healthy levels, the body produces insulin to remove the glucose from the blood stream, and a crash in energy usually follows.
The point? If we continually consume foods high on the GI scale and insulin levels stay elevated, our endocrine system freaks out, trying to adjust to perpetually high insulin levels. The result: we feel tired, hungry, and unhappy. Not fun.
So what to do?
1) Eat low on the GI scale.
Take Lil’ Jon’s advice, “Get low”…on the GI scale that is. These foods will increase blood glucose moderately over time, preventing a spike in insulin levels which can lead to blood sugar levels dropping below normal. In other words, we won’t crash like we do after consuming half a box of Krispy Kremes. Foods with a lower GI keep us energized throughout the day, may prevent the development of diabetes and heart disease, and are especially helpful for diabetes sufferers. Personally, I’ve found I’m a generally more balanced, happier person and less reliant on stimulants like coffee, soda or Red Bull.
2) Stay away from “white” foods.
When I’m “getting low,” a typical breakfast consists of steel-cut oatmeal (none of that rolled stuff or microwavable junk) with nuts and cinnamon. When I’m not running too, too late, I like to have a grape fruit half as well. In general, I stay away from “white” foods, like things made with white flour or sugar, which have a higher GI.
3) Focus on unprocessed foods high in fiber
Unprocessed foods that are high in fiber should be eaten at every meal- think nuts, vegetables, whole grains and fruit eaten with their skin. For protein, lean meats and nuts are the way to go.
4) Go organic
I’m one of those “organic freaks,” which in this case is a good thing. Free-range or wild animals tend to have less fat and more omega-3 fatty acids, since the animals aren’t raised on grain-based diets.
5) Know the GI for what you’re eating.
For a helpful guide of foods and their GI values I use David Mendosa’s list: www.mendosa.com/gilists.htm
The Moral of the Story
Following the GI is still a fantastic guide to food. It’s not a diet, it’s just a better way to eat and care for your body and mind. I don’t feel like I’m not allowed to eat what I want – if I want that Krispy Kreme, you better believe I’m going to eat it. But since I’m more aware of what that means for my health, I just won’t be finishing off the box.